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Free Metro parking for inauguration?

Metrorail set its highest-ever ridership record on Friday, July 11th, with a combination of a Nationals game, high gas prices, conferences and summer tourism driving over 854,000 people to the trains. But everyone expects that record to pale in comparison to January 20, 2009: the inauguration of President Obama.

By thudfactor on Flickr.

And Metro is getting ready. Yesterday, they released plans for the day, including rush-hour service all day, commemorative SmarTrip cards, and security-related closings of Archives and one entrance at Smithsonian. And parking will be free.

Wait, what?

Parking will be free at all Metrorail operated lots throughout Inauguration weekend, from Saturday, January 17 through Tuesday, January 20, 2009. Metro has nearly 59,000 parking spaces and they are expected to fill up. Reserved parking rules will not be in effect.
If they expect all of the parking spaces to fill up, why lower the price? If anything, suburban riders will be more likely to want to avoid the traffic-choked roads of DC. I doubt many, or even any, people will say, "hm, I was going to ride Metro to inauguration, but instead I have to pay to park. I think I'll take my chances and drive downtown." They'll sure pay downtown, too.

Metro stands to earn big revenue dollars from this day, which they need to shore up their financial situation. But then, they're skipping a big piece of their revenue stream, which only benefits suburban riders over city riders. Those of us who pay extra to live in a walkable area don't benefit.

Metro is also only charging off-peak fares all day. That's less completely unfair to DC and Arlington residents (though still somewhat unfair), but again, why? They're expecting huge crushes of people. Why cut the price? All of those tourists would certainly pay $1.65 per ride within the city on Inauguration Day. But the extra 30 cents can really add up.

Metro does have its reasons. According to yesterday's WMATA board meeting, it's general policy to make parking free on all federal holidays. That probably means public hearings to change the policy and exempt the inauguration. Also, many parking lots only work with SmarTrip, and visitors will get stuck at the gates without a SmarTrip.

There are surely alternatives, like paying one person to manually attend a line with a portable credit card reader. For all the money they'd get, Metro can afford to solve the problem in a slightly less efficient way. At the same time, Metro's top priority is making sure that all the trains run smoothly and we don't see headlines like "MAJOR CHAOS ON METRO; THOUSANDS TRAMPLED TO DEATH." They're focusing their energy on that.

Unfortunately, thanks to technological and policy obstacles, the car-dependent suburban riders get a free pass on the most costly part of their rides, and the rest of us just get squeezed.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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You know, I agree that I'd want tourists paying, but having sat in a line to pay to exit a parking deck (prior to SmartTrip only days) on just a regular work day, we would NEVER get people out of those garages. The line would wrap all the way around the deck. I think they're just sacrificing expediency for the profit, and given how much is costs to staff stations during city-wide events after hours, I really can't blame them. Leaving it as SmartTrip only would certainly be chaos, but those little hand-held credit card readers are sloooooow! Maybe they shouldn't have locked themselves into SmartTrip only garages...hmmmm? Worst decision ever.

by rockcb on Nov 21, 2008 9:58 am • linkreport

Two things:

In the grand scheme of things, we want to encourage as many people to use Metro and mass transit to access the city on that day. Yes, Metro parking is a scarce resource, but we'd much rather have people parking on the fringe and then taking transit in.

Also, consider the fact that many people arriving will be from out of town and not familiar with Metro, nor would they be equipped with SmarTrip cards that are required to pay for parking.

Your arguments about scarcity make sense in the limited scope of Metro, but in the larger scope of planning for the event as a whole, they're not as strong.

There's also, without a doubt, a political element to this, and I doubt Metro wants to step on any toes.

Is it a giveaway? Yes. But in the context of planning for special events, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

by Alex B. on Nov 21, 2008 9:59 am • linkreport

I have to heartily agree with David here. DC suffers the ignominy of not being able to tax income at its source because the Home Fool charter forbids a commuter tax. DC forgoes property taxes on 45% of its land to federal buildings, embassies, and nonprofits. DC has to use its Homeland Security funding for routine events like World Bank/IMF meeting security and inauguration activities. The city's middle class are taxed higher than anyone in the country. We simply cannot afford to keep subisidizing the rest of the country. It's time they give back for what they receive from us.

Why on Earth should the local transit agency price its services below market rate? Surely WMATA can use this opportunty to capture revenue without gouging visitors. If you offer rush hour service all day, is it too much to charge rush hour fares all day?? Of course not.

Regarding parking, the same thing applies. Why should someone complain about paying for something they are using? Surely WMATA can figure out a solution to the influx of people without Smartrip cards. Commemorative cards sold on the spot using extra staff with cc readers makes sense. The cost of parking and commuting will not affect demand because the downtown parking will be at capacity.

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 21, 2008 10:26 am • linkreport

One more thing, regarding the wait times in the parking deck. So who should bear the burden of crowding, our transit agency or the people doing the crowding? People have happily waited for six hours at Obama campaign events to witness history. Concert goers at festival events and sports fans routinely wait out the crowds after a game or event. I think inauguration visitors can sit and chill in their cars waiting for the lot to empty out. If people are that worried, WMATA can send a few guys to each garage to give out free hot chocolate and American flags.

PS David, my hand hurts from typing the captcha words for every comment and each preview. When you get a chance I'd love to see the site allow regular visitors to get cookie'd in or logged in for a smoother experience. Otherwise, the blog totally rocks.

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 21, 2008 10:34 am • linkreport

Ward 1 Guy: I'll try to fix it. In the meantime, you can actually not do the CAPTCHA when you hit preview. It actually ignores the CAPTCHA then, so just skip it. I know that's not clear on the interface and I should fix that.

by David Alpert on Nov 21, 2008 10:37 am • linkreport

In other news:

The WMATA Board of Directors this morning approved the procurement of the 7k cars.

Metro gets OK to seek new rail car design

November 21, 2008 - 9:31am

Adam Tuss, WTOP Radio

by Sand Box John on Nov 21, 2008 10:39 am • linkreport

I think I'll be staying home that day, dealing with an hour long expected wait to take the train has NO appeal to me. Though seeing the throngs of people in the city might be fun.

Also I agree with a user function if you can do it.

by Boots on Nov 21, 2008 10:44 am • linkreport

May we please, PLEASE tone down the city vs. suburbs, suburbs vs. city, us vs. them, them vs. us rhetoric? I thought the point of this blog was about greater "Greater Washington," not just those who live in Dupont... or in the District... or in the District and Arlington... or those inside the Beltway... yadda, yadda. We live in a region -- a massive region -- and provincial thinking has not and will not solve anything.

As per Metro on Inauguration Day, it seems they're doing their best to figure out how to avoid complete meltdown in moving double the number of passengers. January 20 is poised to be an extraordinary day in ever sense of the word for our region; I think it's best we suspend our squabbles and just try to get through it as gracefully as possible.

by Matt on Nov 21, 2008 11:10 am • linkreport

The economist in me pains to think about the consumer surplus being given away with free parking and non-peak fares. WMATA had better not come to us next year with a request for higher fares due to a funding shortfall. They're giving away possibly a couple of million dollars in foregone revenue, and for no good policy reason. It's not like the parking downtown will be cheap or available and people will drive instead because WMATA is charging $5 for metro parking. The parking lots will be full either way, since most of the lots are full on workdays, and the demand will be even higher on Inauguration Day.

Also, with only 35,000 commemorative smartrip cards sold, what's the consensus for how much they will be worth on eBay? $100, $200? Why should WMATA only charge $10 for these?

On the bright side, I'm going to probably put my off-street parking space up on craigslist. Anyone want to suggest a rate? It's next to the East Falls Church metro (2 blocks) and available all day. If it goes for $50 or more, I'll consider moving my own car into the metro station parking lot at 4am and sell them both.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 21, 2008 11:18 am • linkreport

How can you say "who pay extra to live in a walkable area don't benefit". Parking garages are the cash cow for Metro and that revenue is infused into the whole system benefiting everyone. Parking garages recoup their cost usually within 5-7 years, the rest is pretty much profit. For instance the Shady grove parking lot cost $27.4M. The parking lot has 2,140 spots. Remember that the parking spot is not only brining in $5/day, it is bringing in a Metro rider that is spending around $9 for their trip. So that equates to $14/parking spot/day or approx $30k/day in parking revenue for that garage. 242 working days a year equals $7.2 million/year; the parking lot is pretty much paid off in 4 years. Revenue from parking garages benefits everyone who rides metro, to say that city dwellers don’t benefit is completely false.

On another note Metro should not only charge for parking on the 20th they should raise the rates. Metro need to milk this for all it is worth! Hell even having a bucket to collect cash is better than nothing at all.

by RJ on Nov 21, 2008 11:38 am • linkreport

Remember that the parking spot is not only brining in $5/day, it is bringing in a Metro rider that is spending around $9 for their trip. So that equates to $14/parking spot/day or approx $30k/day in parking revenue for that garage.

Ok, but as an accounting matter, couldn't you also say "remember that the Metro is not only bringing in $9/day, it is also bringing in a car parker that is spending around $5 for parking"?

Why give all the revenue credit to parking? In the end, they are intergral to each other (although the parking garage is more dependent on the Metro rather than vice versa. You can have a metro stop without a garage if you have density. A garage without a metro stop is just a park'n'ride, which not many people are going to pay for.)

by Reid on Nov 21, 2008 12:13 pm • linkreport

I think metro and every other fee charging institution both public and private should double their fees on this historic occasion. It is the American way.

I'm going to take advantage of the days off and go to Florida anyway.

by Tom on Nov 21, 2008 12:41 pm • linkreport

What's worse than the parking is that they plan to implement SATURDAY BUS SERVICE. How do they expect these 1.6 million riders to get to/from Metrorail? If they fill up the parking lots, which I'm sure they will, that's at the very most 470,000 (4 per car, one ride in, one ride out).

I can sort of understand that the downtown streets will be chaotic, but there are any number of bus routes that terminate at outlying stations that can reasonably be expected to have high demand, because they serve areas far from Metrorail. The A buses coming to Anacostia come to mind, plus the buses that terminate at RI-Ave. And probably lots that terminate at suburban stations.

Hell, if they don't want to run all the way downtown, at least let the 70s run Silver Spring--Shaw Howard, and the 50s run Silver Spring--Columbia Heights, and let the X2 terminate at Union Station.

On any of these routes, with the infrequent Saturday schedules in place, I can imagine unbearable crowding on many of these routes.

by thm on Nov 21, 2008 12:42 pm • linkreport

What does it matter it is $14/rider for Metro. Look at Van Dorn St as compared to Franconia Springfield. Both Metro Station are really close to each other and located next to 95/495. Why is Franconia ridership much higher than Van Dorn? Parking. If you didn’t have parking in low density areas you have to rely on those that live there, which isn’t much at the moment. Parking gives each station a bigger reach to grab more riders. If you could not walk or bus to the Metro (most who drive to Metro) you would look for other options, which is lost revenue for Metro. Sure density will help, but these stations are not there yet and won’t be for some time. Ideally when you put in a station you hope that the area becomes dense to shore up the revenue stream, however in the meantime you have to rely on parking to hold you over and keep the Bank of Amsterdam off your ass.

by RJ on Nov 21, 2008 12:47 pm • linkreport

Forget the credit card reader -- hire temp staff to collect cash from parkers without SmarTrip. I know after-hours temp staff on Inauguration Day will be expensive, but at $5 a car, how many cars per hour are needed before break-even? Not many, I'm willing to bet. And there's going to be a big line leaving the lots anyway. You don't even have to staff it all day, just in the evening (if you want to leave for free in the middle of the day, be our guest).

And charge on-peak rates for on-peak service, for Pete's sake. It's a cash cow, and although a few savvy people might walk/take a bus/taxi (in a group), it'll be a net benefit without much increased cost per person (and much of it borne by tourists).

This is a big opportunity to subsidize service for the rest of the year, without much downside. It'd be a shame not to capture it.

by Gavin Baker on Nov 21, 2008 12:47 pm • linkreport

I see the influx of visitors as a way to showcase public transportation to people from places w/o it. If they have a good experience they will take that back to where ever they came from and make plans for their own transit projects. That doesn't help our system, but if there is more desire nationally to increase transit then perhaps the federal DOT budget share for transit will increase - which would help our system.

by Bianchi on Nov 21, 2008 12:51 pm • linkreport

Look at Van Dorn St as compared to Franconia Springfield. Both Metro Station are really close to each other and located next to 95/495. Why is Franconia ridership much higher than Van Dorn? Parking.

Not true. Franconia is higher than the Van Dorn stop because it's the end of the line stop - whereas closer in park and ride stops are capturing only local parkers, those in outer suburban areas (as far as 30 miles out from the station, are going to be parking at the outermost station)

by Jare on Nov 21, 2008 12:56 pm • linkreport

Saturday bus schedules is not a good way to showcase public transportation - plus it contradicts the decision to run rush hour train schedules all day. Why put the busses on a schedule that not only discourages their use (b/c of the service schedule) but also won't be able to properly serve those who do use it that day b/c of over-crowding? That's dumb.

by Bianchi on Nov 21, 2008 12:58 pm • linkreport

I agree with thm -- if they are running rush hour Metrorail service all day, they should be running rush hour bus service all day. Those of us who live in DC realize what a clusterf this is going to be with so many out-of-town visitors taking metro, and alot of us (ok, me) were planning to take the bus and to avoid the clueless crowds. I'm that glad you highlighted the free parking nonsense - I can't believe that they would offer free parking and encourage people to drive to Metro stations that day! I suspect there will be alot of unhappy out-of-towners on the 20th who drive the metro only to find the lots filled and decide their only alternative is to drive into the city instead. There must be a better solution than this.

by DC_Chica on Nov 21, 2008 1:12 pm • linkreport

Closer in parking is much smaller and fill up faster, while end of the line stations have much bigger garages and take longer to fill up. It has little to do with distance than the time window to find parking.

by RJ on Nov 21, 2008 1:19 pm • linkreport

"Unfortunately, thanks to technological and policy obstacles, the car-dependent suburban riders get a free pass on the most costly part of their rides, and the rest of us just get squeezed."

Apparently Metro is concerned with transporting customers on a blockbuster day, not with maximizing revenue.

Parking is always free on holidays. Your suggested employee standing around with a credit card reader would rightly provoke outrage when the agency will need as many hands as it can get down on the platforms and mezzanines, helping with the crowds.

I'm just puzzled at this bit of outrage.

by Omari on Nov 21, 2008 1:27 pm • linkreport

The taxpayers of the whole country paid most of the cost of building Metro. When they all come visit for a big family celebration, shouldn't we be good hosts?

I know that's not how an economist thinks, but we shouldn't always think like economists.

by Ben Ross on Nov 21, 2008 1:48 pm • linkreport

I, too, am puzzled by this outrage. Metro is seeking to move as many people as possible, not to maximize revenue. They'll be running full rush-hour service non stop the entire day.

Also, with regard to funding, I suspect that the Feds are ponying up for Metro to do this. Usually, if you want an increase in service, you have to pay.

Ben is right, we shouldn't always think like economists.

by Alex B. on Nov 21, 2008 1:52 pm • linkreport

"Metro Parking Garage: HOV-4"

by stevek_fairfax on Nov 21, 2008 1:56 pm • linkreport

Alex: No, the feds aren't paying a dime extra to Metro for the inauguration. In fact, the amount of money they are currently paying won't even cover the police right around the inauguration, let alone all the police needed elsewhere.

Ben Ross: Should all Metro fares be free? Why just parking?

by David Alpert on Nov 21, 2008 1:59 pm • linkreport

what about running MARC and VRE trains all day too (and opening up their parking lots)?

by stevek_fairfax on Nov 21, 2008 2:01 pm • linkreport

This will be complete hell for resident of DC and immediate surrounding counties.

Bus riders are going to be seriously pissed, what is the logic in having Metrobus run Saturday service. The bus routes will already be messed up because of street closing then the fact of there running on Saturday service and you likely wont be able to tell where to catch a damn a bus at downtown will only make things worst.

WMATA needs to come up with a better way of informing bus riders of disruptions or detours if you go on WMATA's site and read the bus detour descriptions you get confused as hell to say the least, dear WMATA how about coming up with a map showing the way the buses normally go and the detoured route instead of trying to figure out what street is what. Just like during the street closures around Judiciary Sq. about a week and a half ago the D6 route was going all over the place and no one could tell you where to go to catch it.

There making the subway have rush hour service plus off peak fares, where the hell is the discount for bus riders since the routes will be cut in half, shortened and service will be terrible.

by kk on Nov 21, 2008 2:02 pm • linkreport

Stevek has a point, but only up to a point.

I don't think any of this will make much difference if the city is getting 3-4 million extra people. Metro will fill up 5 seconds after opening.

In the vein of 'gracious hosts,' has anyone done a parking-space census? We may actually have something like enough parking spaces in the city, if you count every facility that built peak-usage single-purpose spaces. Passing some rule that allows all of them to be used for all-day parking for one day with no penalties would seem to be advantageous, given how much they would benefit our economy by spending time on-foot rather than sitting in gridlock.

by Squalish on Nov 21, 2008 2:04 pm • linkreport

Will bikes be allowed since it's off-peak fare?

by Squalish on Nov 21, 2008 2:07 pm • linkreport

Great question - will bikes be allowed on trains all day/any part of the day?

REPEAT to WMATA: Put busses on rush hour/peak service schedule too - or at least regular schedules (rush hour/peak in a.m. and p.m.)

Don't MARC and VRE run all day on regular weekdays anyway? Are they planning on going to a Sunday schedule? (that's a bad plan)

This is like planning for the olympics for a day.

by Bianchi on Nov 21, 2008 2:41 pm • linkreport

I assume Metro will implement thier 4th of July train set up, which will most likely means NO BIKES.

by RJ on Nov 21, 2008 2:44 pm • linkreport


At the risk of sounding a bit smug, I sure am glad that I live within walking distance of the inauguration/parade route.

by Hiya on Nov 21, 2008 2:47 pm • linkreport

They should institute prices, not so much for revenue but for the sake of rivalry and keeping the whole damn system from being overloaded. Free stuff always gets overused.

by Tim on Nov 21, 2008 3:16 pm • linkreport

@Alex B: "Apparently Metro is concerned with transporting customers on a blockbuster day, not with maximizing revenue."

But the thing is, once the parking lot is full, you're not going to serve any more customers. WMATA politically won't be able to charge a rate so high the parking lots don't fill up, so it's not a matter of whether customers are served or not, it's a matter of a half-million dollars in revenue or not.

Plus, if WMATA charges for spaces, then more people will carpool (if you have to pay $10 per space, why not ride with a friend or neighbor and save the extra parking fee?) and the average number of riders per car will go up.

If you don't charge, the lot fills up at 6am with on average lower occupancy cars. If you do charge, the lot fills up at 7am with slightly higher occupancy cars, and WMATA gets half a million dollars in revenue they can use to run more buses.

Basis: 57,000 parking spaces * ~$10 per space = ~$0.5M

Times: Wild guess. I'm sure the lot will fill up early, and that it will be earlier with free parking than with paid parking.

Buses: Run 1,000 buses for eight hours. Bus operation costs about $10 per mile, and average 15-20 miles per hour. Total: $1,200,000-1,600,000 for the day. WMATA has 1,500 buses total, so running 1,000 buses is a significant fraction of the absolute maximum service possible. Buses recover between about 10% and 50% of their costs at the farebox.

$10: There is a price high enough that the lot doesn't fill up during the peak, but I think it's higher than $10. Considering many of the lots fill up early in the day for normal rush hour at a price around $5, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime event where apartments are renting for thousands per night, I think $10 is a reasonable assumption.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 21, 2008 3:45 pm • linkreport

Michael, I understand the revenue implications. I just don't think they are relevant in this case.

This is not about transit. This is about transit's role in a major special event. If Metro is looking at 1.6 million riders, that's essentially double the previous high. You're going to see that the majority of those new riders will have little idea of how to use the system. Charging for parking would be seen as piling on and fleecing patrons to a national event of great significance.

You can disagree with that all you like, but there's a political reality here that few seem to have acknowledged. Furthermore, you have to remember how Metro fits into the overall planning for the event. It is a vital link, and they want to make it as easy as possible. The off-peak fares mean the fares are also much easier to understand and predict for new riders.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, I'd be very surprised if WMATA isn't also getting paid to do this by the Feds. The quid pro quo with that assistance for an event like this, however, is that you don't 'gouge' the visitors and customers, no matter how justified it may be.

It's also entirely plausible that paying people to operate cash parking at Metro lots would be a money loser in terms of labor and delay (when compared to open gates, people lining up without smartrip cards, etc.).

You want to get as many people on Metro as you can for this event. Hence, subsidy is warranted.

Frankly, anyone questioning this decision from a standpoint of revenue is approaching it from the wrong direction. This is a once in a lifetime event - it's not the time to pinch pennies.

by Alex B. on Nov 21, 2008 3:57 pm • linkreport

I'm guessing there's probably some political realities that weren't a part of the press release...

We need to ask ourselves, what would the political fallout be if WMATA "thought like an economist" rather than a compact agency caught between various political factions and dependent on all of them for its funding?

As an economist, I often get into discussions with other economists about whether various models and thought experiments are valid at all. Often, profit maximizing models fail to take into account all the complications of the real-world applications... kind of like cost estimates for building infrastructure.

by Cavan on Nov 21, 2008 4:02 pm • linkreport

Alex: I already addressed this, but seriously. The feds aren't paying. Go ahead and be surprised.

by David Alpert on Nov 21, 2008 4:04 pm • linkreport

Apparently I should have scrolled down one more page in the WMATA 2009 approved budget (page 59). The "maximum scheduled fleet" of buses is 1,281. Assume that WMATA is able to increase that 10% for one day to 1,400 (leaving 100 buses in overhaul or repair), you can increase the estimate of bus costs for inauguration day to $2,250,000. It's likely to be more expensive than that because of overtime charges, but that's a ballpark figure. Around $2-3M is what it would cost to run maximum bus service on inauguration day.

Would it be worth it? By all means. Will WMATA do it? Who knows?

I know from the last finance, administration and oversight committee hearing they're running about a $5.5M surplus from two months of operation this year. It's from higher fares and increased ridership combined with lower than expected costs. If not spent, that money gets returned to the local governments.

WMATA has a small surplus approximately twice the size of what I estimate it would cost to run rush hour buses on the busiest ridership day of all time.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 21, 2008 4:07 pm • linkreport

David is probably right about the point about not getting assistance from the Federal government for this event. That's just how things usually work out.

Even still, I can see why WMATA chose the course of action they did. It seems to be an attempt to serve many masters at once. It's gotta be a tough political calculus.

by Cavan on Nov 21, 2008 4:09 pm • linkreport

I agree w/ David. Metro should be charging for parking. Every cent we lose inauguration day is a cent we don't have the next time an escalator needs repair, a railcar breaks down, or we want to build a new line somewhere.

These parking garages are going to fill up with or without a charge, so we may as well charge. Metro doesn't need to fleece anyone, but they don't need to give wild discounts either.

And yeah... MARC and VRE should run constantly, but they probably don't have the choice. The freight railroads own the tracks and most likely aren't suspending activity.

by BeyondDC on Nov 21, 2008 4:11 pm • linkreport

How about the other end, the DC government? Is there some way that DC could, Inaguration Day only, convert all free parking in the "federal city" (South of Florida Ave) to $5 parking? Or would that be a logistical nightmare, too?

by tom veil on Nov 21, 2008 4:30 pm • linkreport

What Michael and Cavan are describing as "thinking like an economist," I would describe as "thinking like a poor to mediocre economist," i.e., an economist who is only looking at part of the picture, not considering other critical factors, such as the need for WMATA to move people quickly and safely through the system or longer term factors such as the goodwill associated with a smooth running transportation system. Those factors would be part of a good economic anlaysis.

There are many issues discussed in this blog where an overly simplistic, short term analysis, appling some Econ 101 lessons, ignores important issues, such as externalities, peak load pricing or public goods. This is but one example, and describing this simplistic analysis and similar analyses in the blog as "thinking like an economist" gives real economists a black eye.

Like many others here, I think that WMATA should be running the buses on at least a weekday schedule or a modified weekday to facilite getting visitors and workers downtown. As with the fourth of July, there should be strict rules against carrying bicycles, coolers, etc. on the Metro. For those who suggested collecting cash at the parking lots, perhaps you forgot about the scandal that led to the SmartTrip only policy for paying for parking.

by Another economist on Nov 21, 2008 4:31 pm • linkreport

Given that I don't know how anyone predicts the actual numbers, but I think you guys are underestimating what 3-4 million people look like, particularly in our relatively small city.

The entire Beijing Olympics only recorded around 7 million visitors, and only 400k from overseas; Presumably, many of these were single-day or single-event tickets spread out over two weeks - no single day had this many people. For this, road traffic was shut down, a hundred miles of subway were built, a solid decade of constant construction took place, hundreds of thousands of houses were demolished and people displaced, a body larger than our coast guard was devoted to weather manipulation, every hotel in the city learned English and filled up, entire new tourist infrastructure was built at every notable site.

Beijing's normal population is ten times the size of DC, and much more able to absorb such a flood.

IF these upper estimates are reached, the busy parts of the city are going to shut down. Metro will not be available for love or money, only patience with the hours-long lines. Prudence would suggest calling up every transit agency in the northeast corridor and borrowing buses for the day, then running everything for free. Because adding even a million cars to our roads is going to result in a lot more passenger-hours than tourist-hours on that day. Metrobus doesn't get paid by the minute.

I'll still be there. Just because.

Anyone have a "Crowd survival handbook"?

by Squalish on Nov 21, 2008 4:51 pm • linkreport

@AlexB: I fully agree with Michael about getting the revenue, but aside from that point, what impression will Metro make on the tourist who drives to the metro station at 8am to find it full? What do we expect such a person/family to do anyway? If WMATA doesn't exceed expectations by putting up very understandable signage about where else to park, their "customer" will likely regret choosing MetroRail as their mode of transportation.

RE: buses: If WMATA is anticipating parking lots to fill up (which as discussed above will certainly happen with free parking), how else are suburbanites supposed to get to MetroRail? Not buses, apparently. Paraphrasing THM, riding a bus during the equivalent of rush hour with a Saturday schedule will be miserable. I don't think many tourists are likely to take buses, but as long as parking is free and the bus service isn't amped up, I don't see many suburban "riders of choice" going to Metrobus either.

by Lance B on Nov 21, 2008 4:55 pm • linkreport

David, my bad on missing your earlier link. Still, that's funding to DC government, not to WMATA directly. Even if WMATA is taking the direct financial hit all by themselves, there's definitely a larger political quid pro quo going on here.

Another economist hit on many of my points far better than I did. There's a lot more at stake here.

by Alex B. on Nov 21, 2008 5:23 pm • linkreport

@Another Economist wrote: What Michael and Cavan are describing as "thinking like an economist," I would describe as "thinking like a poor to mediocre economist," i.e., an economist who is only looking at part of the picture, not considering other critical factors, such as the need for WMATA to move people quickly and safely through the system . . .

Please explain. How would asking people leaving parking lots between 4am on January 20th and 4am on January 21st to either swipe a Smartrip card or hand an attendant a $10 parking card which you bought at a fare machine hinder WMATA's ability to move people quickly and safely through the system?

... or longer term factors such as the goodwill associated with a smooth running transportation system. Those factors would be part of a good economic anlaysis...

I'm going to go with Lance B and bring up the bad will that would be brought up if someone tries to go to a metro station and finds the parking garage full at 5:30 or 6:00 am, then finds that there are few to no buses because WMATA is running a Saturday schedule. It's not like by charging $10 for parking, WMATA is going to decrease ridership (again, assuming that's below market equilibrium).

. . .There are many issues discussed in this blog where an overly simplistic, short term analysis, appling some Econ 101 lessons, ignores important issues, such as externalities, peak load pricing or public goods. . .

Please explain how these concepts apply in the case of parking pricing for a high demand event where the short run supply curve is essentially a vertical line. Regardless of what price WMATA charges (assuming it's underneath the price that would keep the lot from filling up), the same number of cars will be parked at the station at the peak. The externalities of congestion, pollution and whatnot will be the same because charging for parking is not going to reduce the number of cars parking at metro stations (again, we're at below equilibrium pricing here). If you've got a better analysis as an economist other than parking should be given away for free, please share.

I'm not sure I know what you mean by peak load pricing, but this might be an example of where peak load pricing would be a good idea. This will be a peak load event, where discounted off-peak fares will only lead to more consumer surplus and greater externalities because the system is so congested that no increase in customers served is possible. In fact, the network may be so congested that consumers are harmed by having to endure the crowded trains, platforms, and elevators associated with crush load.

Public goods: That's usually not associated with parking. Except in the low-density suburbs or rural areas, parking is not a public good because it is both rivalrous and excludable. When I park in a space, it prevents you or others from parking in that space (rivalry). If I have control over a parking space, I can choose who I easily exclude from parking in that space by towing unauthorized parkers (excludability). A better example of a public good is the beauty of the Lincoln Memorial, which is neither rivalrous (up to a certain point), nor excludable.

...This is but one example, and describing this simplistic analysis and similar analyses in the blog as "thinking like an economist" gives real economists a black eye.

Like many others here, I think that WMATA should be running the buses on at least a weekday schedule or a modified weekday to facilite getting visitors and workers downtown. As with the fourth of July, there should be strict rules against carrying bicycles, coolers, etc. on the Metro...

I can agree with you there that the Econ 101 approach doesn't always work because people aren't always rational consumers or producers. For what WMATA should do, they should be treating the buses like the trains and running them on a weekday schedule at the very least, and be prepared to run them like crazy to deal with the loads. The normal rush hour or 4th of July rules should be in effect to help with loading.

...For those who suggested collecting cash at the parking lots, perhaps you forgot about the scandal that led to the SmartTrip only policy for paying for parking...

That's because they were collecting cash, and cash tends to disappear. If you set up the fare machines to dispense $10 parking cards that are worthless other than to hand to the attendant on your way out, you've taken out a lot of the fraud available (other than maybe bribing the attendant with $5 to let you out of the parking lot). A lot of airports have gone to the prepaid cards system, I don't know if it's to combat fraud or to simplify processing or cut down lines or what.

I mean, I'm not an economist by trade, but I know that giving things away for free usually makes it so you run out quickly and piss people off.

Who does WMATA want to make happy, people who want to park super early in the morning for free, or all the customers it could serve with the extra revenue they get from the people that are willing to give them money?

It's like the "real economists" are trying to tell us that the supply and demand model only works in some very narrow cases, rather than generally with a few well-researched exceptions.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 21, 2008 7:03 pm • linkreport

We should maybe be handing out free Kool Aid too on January 20th. We know the crowd that will invade on that day drank lots and lots of it during the campaign.

I can't wait to see what happens when people start to realize that everyone was promised everything ... by someone who's never delivered anything ... in his whole life.

On second thought. Let's just shut the Metro down that day!

by Lance on Nov 21, 2008 9:13 pm • linkreport

I think another economist makes some good points, but I'd like to add that all these people taking the Metro from all over the country could lead to some serious public interest in efficient, attractive public transport. Just a thought.

by The King of Spain on Nov 21, 2008 9:19 pm • linkreport

Michael: “It's like the "real economists" are trying to tell us that the supply and demand model only works in some very narrow cases, rather than generally with a few well-researched exceptions.”

Good economic analysis relies on specifying the objective function correctly, as well as the constraints. Supply and demand functions should take into account many factors, and would include information about how consumers (and producers) actually behave, so you comment about behavior simply points to instances in which a more complete model was necessary. Of course, some of the factors included in WMATA’s objective function might be difficult to quantify, and I would include The King’s addition, but difficulty in quantifying factors does not mean that they should be ignored. This is a much more complex problem then the Econ 101 problem that you described.

In terms of the other types of complications that I listed in my earlier post, externalities, peak load pricing or public goods, the failure to consider those issues related to poor analysis that has been posted in other sections of GGW, not the discussion of WMATA’s decisions about how to operate on Inauguration Day. Correctly defined objective functions and constraints will give you analyses that consider these issues.

by another economist on Nov 22, 2008 8:10 am • linkreport

@another economist

Please cite more specific examples and how the analysis could have been improved. I'm always up for learning. What do you mean by an "objective function"? If there is a clear policy that improves social welfare, is that not good enough?

Are you really advocating a policy that would result in a severe shortage of parking at metro stations?

by Michael Perkins on Nov 22, 2008 12:42 pm • linkreport

I don't think any of us can visualized four million people coming to town...and what impact this will have on mass transit, parking, total gridlock, etc;

I would suggest that those downtown employers who can give their people the day off should do so. And it's be a great idea for neighborhoods in the city to have their own inaugural festivities. If there's a party on U Street where folks can watch and listen to the Inaugural Address, they won't feel compelled to go to the mall.

January 20th promises to be a great and historic date in American history. But those of us who live here should be about foreseeing the many logistical problems it will bring and figuring out how to alleviate at least some of them.

Free parking at Metro is small beer when compared to the larger issues of access and public safety we will face.

by Mike Silverstein on Nov 22, 2008 12:43 pm • linkreport

I can only echo Mike's comments. I think it's safe to assume that working at home that day will be the only option open to those of us not getting the day off (i.e., those of us who are not federal employees.) Also think about places like hospitals and other critical work places. Their employees may not be able to get to work in the fist place... While at the same time, their services will be more needed than usual ... by more people! I agree that the issue of charging or not charging parking fees that day isn't really important. We need to figure out instead how to keep the District functioning. The night Obama was elected was only a prelude to the "out of the ordinary" behavior we can expect. There will be 10 fold more people here for the inauguration, and 10 fold more chances for crowd control problems to occur. The District needs to be ready to handle this crowd and to ensure that the District continues to function for its citizens as well as the visitors.

by Lance on Nov 22, 2008 3:51 pm • linkreport

D.C. residents stop your crying. Most users of metro during the inaugration will be from out of town. That fact alone means that the district will have an abundant amount of income. As it stands now half of the district residnets do not pay for services nor income taxes. The district was created more than 200 hundred years ago and no one is forced to live in D.C. You need to get over it

by jd on Nov 24, 2008 1:01 am • linkreport

jd: WMATA (Metro) is not the District. The District may or may not have an abundant amount of income due to tourism for the event, but WMATA will be far from recovering the cost of running 15 hours of straight rush hour service. The District is not obligated to transfer money from its tourism windfall to WMATA.

It sounds like your answer to "the District does not have democratic representation at the national level" is "if you don't like it, move."

by Michael Perkins on Nov 24, 2008 7:31 am • linkreport

Also, David's article earlier noted that the District will not be getting more funding from the Feds - but did not mention if WMATA would be getting extra funding.

There's no doubt that DC gets hosed, in budgetary terms, from the strain that events like this put on MPD and other local agencies - but that's part and parcel of being the nation's capital.

I've talked to WMATA about increasing service for other special events, and they are always quite cognizant of the cost implications of what they do. In short, I trust their judgment on this and I also feel that it fits in well with the larger issue of special event planning.

by Alex B. on Nov 24, 2008 10:06 am • linkreport

Alex: Metro's decision may make sense given their current constraints. Current policy demands free parking on holidays, and they'd need time-consuming hearings to change that. The parking payment technology is also inadequate.

But by reognizing this problem now, we could get started on changes to give them more flexibility in the future. A time like this is the only time to bring it up.

As for the feds paying something, I don't know how to respond to this. It took a Herculean effort to get a bill passed for the feds to kick in some of the cost of their many employees riding Metro every day. Contributing for this event would similarly take an act of Congress, and I see no chance of that. I doubt Norton will be able to get any money even for the immediate direct cost of the event itself, but good for her for raising the point.

by David Alpert on Nov 24, 2008 10:52 am • linkreport

David: The hearings are only required to have 15 days' notice. If WMATA's board had wanted to do hearings to charge for parking, they could have made that call and had a board meeting to approve advertising for hearings. When I listened to the audio of the board meeting, the subject of free parking did come up, but WMATA management just pointed to the policy that it was a holiday, and the discussion didn't go further than that.

To me, it seems like the Board had the opportunity to ask about changing the policy and advertising a hearing to change the fares or parking fees just for January 20, but they decided by inaction that the policy was OK.

I don't know how plausible accepting cash or having the vending machines vend parking passes would be at this stage. I just think it's unfortunate that it appears WMATA waited until we had a president-elect to start planning for an inauguration. I guess if McCain were elected we wouldn't have 3-4 million people coming to visit? Maybe WMATA thought it was just going to be a normal busy inauguration day, not the crush-load Obamocalypse that's causing people to rent out their apartments at $1000 per night.

They make both sets of "Super Bowl Champions" hats so they're ready at the final whistle. WMATA could have at least had the designs and contracts ready to go for the commemorative smartrip cards, and had board approval already lined up with maybe the final price and quantity as an option.

The way it is now, they're struggling to get as many cards as they can, and they're having trouble with the timeline to the point that the cards that are sold before inauguration day are not going to be preloaded with any value.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 24, 2008 1:14 pm • linkreport

They weren't making Super Bowl hats, because unlike the Super Bowl (where the winning team is guaranteed to wear their hats), planning all out for President John McCain is a completely different situation than planning for President Barack Obama.

I'm sure they thought about it, but there are certain things that they just can't take action on until the details are set in stone.

Furthermore, despite the discussion of whether it could be done or not, I still think you're glossing over the political points of whether it should be done or not. Even if there isn't a quid pro quo for WMATA funding, even if there isn't the best revenue choice, there's more to it than just that.

by Alex B. on Nov 24, 2008 1:51 pm • linkreport

With respect to the commemorative smartrip cards, they are making "super bowl hats". Those were going to be hot commodities regardless of the face on the card, and it would have been less of a mess if the design for the cards were ready to go on November 5. Now, WMATA is playing catch-up and will only have a fraction of the cards needed to meet demand because of a short time schedule.

Political points or not, I'm going to be pissed if WMATA has to ask for a fare increase next year if they overlook reasonable revenue sources like charging people for parking on the busiest metro day of all time. I'm not "glossing over" anything, it's just that the "political points" don't "pay the bills".

Let me repeat that, the busiest metro day of all time. Why not charge the people who are using it that day?

by Michael Perkins on Nov 24, 2008 3:09 pm • linkreport

...anyone thought about Jiffy Johns?

by stevek_fairfax on Nov 24, 2008 3:30 pm • linkreport

"Political points or not, I'm going to be pissed if WMATA has to ask for a fare increase ..."

...Because this is clearly all about you. There will be millions that need to be served in addition to you. And what if you get pissed? Are you going to bang your tiny fists on the ground?

Sarcasm aside, I'm just trying to make a point about WMATA having to serve a bunch of masters on this one. We don't know who they all are. We don't know who promised what to who. I'm sure there are some practical considerations regarding getting over a million people around that we can't really consider since we're not under pressure to do so.

The Metro was built and operates more out of political realities and serving its constituent member jurisdictions. It has not been an endeavor that has had a realistic chance of paying for itself since the mid-'60s before WMATA even existed. This reality will be present on January 20th, too.

by Cavan on Nov 25, 2008 10:42 am • linkreport

There are only 60,000 parking spaces at stake here, so we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people affected by free parking rather than "millions". There will be millions riding, but most will not be using WMATA parking spaces.

The benefit to the millions from charging for parking will be all the additional bus service that could be provided with the revenue.

I just don't see how not charging for parking and charging off-peak fares is consistent with WMATA's compact, which states in part: "as far as possible, the payment of all costs shall be borne by the persons using or benefiting from the Authority's facilities and services". In this case, charging for parking will be possible because it will not affect the number of spaces actually used. They're going to fill up anyway.

From the audio of the board meeting, I didn't hear any evidence of serving a bunch of masters or political considerations. WMATA told the board they planned on free parking but that it would be crowded. The chair (Chris Zimmerman) questioned free parking, and WMATA told him that it was because it was a federal holiday. It didn't seem like the discussion got any further than that.

And I don't just advocate for policies to keep fares low for my own health and pocketbook, there are hundreds of thousands of riders out there, and all of them would be hit by another fare increase if one is necessary.

I understand that there are political considerations at stake here, but I just don't see how free parking will improve any of them. The system is going to be crowded like we've never seen, and low parking fees are just going to make it "crowded-er".

Metrorail is getting within striking distance of paying for its own operating costs. It ran a 90% cost recovery ratio in July-August of this year, turning out a surplus over expected budget. If ridership stays high and WMATA has another fare increase we could get to the magic number of 100%. Bus and Metroaccess are another story.

I've made all the arguments I can. I don't know what more to say. Charge for parking but increase bus service is all I got.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 25, 2008 12:29 pm • linkreport

No one is forcing WMATA to provide free parking. Also the rides are not free hence there must be a profit for the transit system. You are so bent on your persoanl feelings that you just ignore the facts.

by jd on Dec 8, 2008 9:49 pm • linkreport

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